Dangerous PCs: Users Blame Sudden Acceleration for Recent Spate of Injuries

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An SPCAS victim shows lingering effects of his ordeal as he reenacts, under medical supervision, the terrifying episode of PC acceleration.
William "Billy" Boness of Chickamauga, Georgia, was one of the lucky ones. He had never experienced a moment's trouble with his laptop. Not when his five-year-old daughter spilled hot chocolate all over the keyboard; not when he accidentally dropped it into freezing water while ice fishing during a winter vacation to Bemidji, Minnesota; not even when he ran it over twice with his 2009 Toyota Tacoma pickup as part of what he now concedes was "a foolish bet."

But last week, his laptop nearly killed him. As Boness, a customer retention specialist at Confederate Monument Hot Tubs in nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, enjoyed his customary early-afternoon stint of surfing the Web while watching Family Guy reruns on Hulu.com, "suddenly she just went, like, totally out of control, speeding like NASCAR or something," he says.

According to Boness, windows and dialog boxes began opening and closing in rapid succession; a simple Windows search query completed in less than 2 minutes, and "even the ads, which usually take half a minute, zipped by in seconds. And I love those ads."

"I tried to slow it down, slammed on the Esc key, even hit Pause/Break on my keyboard, but no luck. I was desperate." Emergency medical technicians called to Boness's workplace by concerned coworkers several hours later found the burly multitasker lying face-down on the mottled-brown industrial carpet of his rather spartan office, the apparent victim of a severe seizure brought on by Sudden PC Acceleration Syndrome (SPCAS).

Other Cases Reported

Boness's case is no isolated incident, consumer watchdog groups warn. Windows machines across the country seem to be going haywire, sending unsuspecting users to emergency rooms and undermining PC owners' confidence in the inherent safety and reliability of the beloved proprietary computing platform. Initial reports, subsequently debunked, that the speed-ups were strictly a mechanical issue caused by a sticky Tab key served only to panic consumers further.

Indeed, as complaints of SPCAS continue to pour in to federal OSHA offices nationwide, the computer industry has grown visibly nervous about the prospect of liability. "We are looking into these reports carefully," says Crystal Grentz, a spokesperson for industry trade group PCTIRACP, "but at this point in time, we see no need for a recall. The incidents have no definite pattern, and we've been unable to independently verify that they are anything more than isolated episodes of operator error, or mass delusion. Consumers should have no doubts that they can continue buying--and enjoying--their PCs as usual."

Industry Stonewalling

The harrowing tales that the victims recount tell a different--and eerily similar--story: The first sign of trouble is a whirring sound, followed by a bit of screen flicker, and no ominous, tell-tale click; then, suddenly, the once-sluggish machine starts cranking away at an alarming rate.

Nausea, double vision, uncontrolled twitching, fainting spells, Moore's syndrome, and even loss of bladder control are common symptoms, according to initial reports. Six-figure lawsuits, analysts predict, are sure to follow.

An unidentified researcher attempts to reproduce the alleged deviant acceleration behavior in a test machine.
Not so fast, cautions Dr. Clarissa Tilman-Smith, an associate professor of applied accelerontology at the Northern Technical Campus of Southeastern West Virginia State, who has been studying the issue with the aid of a handful of overworked, poorly remunerated graduate-student assistants. While it's theoretically possible that a hardware glitch could cause some PCs to overclock themselves for short bursts, Tilman-Smith believes that user error is a more likely culprit.

"I've overseen more than 17,000 hours of instrumented tests on 1000 laptops and desktops, and I've never been able to duplicate even one instance of SPCAS," she says. "But in that same time period, I've documented more than 9000 occurrences of user volunteers mistakenly pressing the right mouse button when they meant to press the left button."

What Really Happens

According to Tilman-Smith, a significant number of Windows users who permit their cursor to hover over the antivirus software icon in their system tray mistakenly press the right mouse button and then uncheck their AV protection, thereby unintentionally deactivating the program. "Turning off security software not only leaves users vulnerable to a full panoply of hazardous malware, it can also cause the computer to speed up precipitously--even dangerously." The result, she says, is a runaway computer, aka Sudden PC Acceleration Syndrome.

Fortunately, effective safeguards are readily available to all Windows users. "I recommend running at least two security suites at once," says Tilman-Smith. "Then even if you accidentally turn one off, your computer will still run slow enough that you needn't worry." Alternatively, she says, acceleration-sensitive individuals might consider switching to a Mac. "They only have one mouse button, which make things so much safer...and no antivirus software to speak of."

This story, "Dangerous PCs: Users Blame Sudden Acceleration for Recent Spate of Injuries" was originally published by PCWorld Exclusive.

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